Investigators working on the Thursday night disappearance of Indian aid worker Judith D’Souza believe she is being held by one of several organised crime cartels who have earned millions of dollars in ransom from kidnapping foreign nationals, intelligence and police sources have told The Indian Express.
The kidnappers, the sources said, spoke Pashto with an accent that suggested they were from the Shomali Plains, a plateau that was once among the country’s most fertile areas, but was reduced to a desert in the course of decades of war. Two men have been detained for questioning.
D’Souza, a Kolkata resident, is a gender specialist with the Aga Khan Foundation — part of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has funneled almost $750 million into the war-torn country’s reconstruction.
India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Manpreet Vohra, met with top security officials in Kabul on Friday, as the country’s security services launched a massive effort to seek out the 40-year-old D’Souza.
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External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj also took to Twitter Friday to assure D’Souza’s family that the government “will spare no effort to rescue her”. “The Aga Khan Foundation and the Indian mission are coordinating their efforts to secure her release,” a senior Indian diplomat in Kabul said. “Frankly, the less publicity we have, the easier it is going to be.”
Local criminal gangs have long cashed in the presence of foreigners and affluent Afghans in Taimani, the area where D’Souza lived. Till a police crackdown in 2014, the rival mafia of Habib Istalif and Raees Khudaidad — both executed last year — were alleged to be involved in a wave of murders, kidnappings and protection rackets.
This year, however, has seen a renewed surge in kidnappings. Last month, armed gunmen attempted to hijack a vehicle carrying an NGO’s staff near the Qalla-e-Fathulla road, where D’Souza was kidnapped.
Local police said the gunmen appeared to be seeking to steal the vehicle, rather than kidnap its occupants, but diplomatic personnel in Kabul had been sceptical of that assessment
“The threat of kidnapping and hostage-taking continues to be very high,” the United States Embassy in Kabul had warned in a strongly worded statement issued after the incident.
Last month, the Indian mission in Afghanistan had also warned Indians living there against the “risk of kidnapping and hostage taking throughout Afghanistan.”
Indian professionals and aid workers are active in almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, working on a welter of development projects funded both by their home government and international non-governmental organisations. Both criminal gangs and the Taliban have targeted Indians — the last incident involving a group of three men working on a construction project who were rescued in 2014 by Afghanistan’s intelligence services.
In 2006, the Taliban had executed engineer K Suryanarayana, a communications engineer who was working with an Afghan cellphone network. Negotiations for the release of foreign aid workers have sometimes lasted years, but there have been cases where their release was secured relatively quickly. Anja DeBeers, a Dutch aid worker kidnapped from Taimani in June last year, was released after three months in captivity. In a statement, DeBeers said her captors “gave me food and drink and I was not mistreated”.
In the DeBeers case, and in a similar incident involving two German aid workers, Afghan authorities said ransoms of over $1.5 million were paid in return for the safe return of the hostages. Elsewhere in the country, too, foreign aid workers have been targeted. In April, Australian aid worker Katherine Wilson, who had worked in Afghanistan for over 20 years, was kidnapped from the city of Jalalabad. Wilson ran an organisation that sourced zardozi embroidery work from rural women, for sale in Kabul and overseas.
Local employees working for international organisations, who are deployed in rural areas where international staff cannot safely work, are among the most vulnerable to attack. Last year, five Afghan staff for the international charity Save the Children were murdered in Oruzgan province.
The International NGO Safety Organisation, which monitors incidents involving aid workers worldwide, says there have been four fatalities, four injuries and 39 kidnappings in Afghanistan this year so far-the highest among any of the conflict zones it monitors.